Saturday, October 1, 2011

Life in the Vineyard

Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20: Matthew 21:33-46

In today’s Gospel story, Jesus tells a story about a landowner and some of his tenant farmers. When the harvest is due, they decide to keep the profits, and eventually try to claim the land as their own. They are guilty of assault, murder, and attempted theft. We call them the evil tenants.
This story is the third passage in a row we’ve read with a parable of a vineyard. They have similar themes: it doesn’t matter how much work you do in the vineyard, the pay (grace) is the same; it’s what’s in your heart and what you do in the vineyard that matters, not what you say you will do. Today, the obvious theme is: if you don’t take care of the vineyard, other tenants will be put in your place who will produce good fruit.
It’s important to know that Jesus directs this story to the Jewish leaders. History bears the evidence that God had sent messenger after messenger to call and recall the people to a covenant relationship. From the beginning, the followers of Moses grumbled and complained that they were better off as slaves than as people wandering in the wilderness. Even with only ten simple commands describing their relationship, the people struggled to obey and believe. After Moses, there were judges and kings and prophets, and the people and the leaders had great difficulty hearing and obeying the word of the Lord. In Jesus’ time, the leaders had rejected John the Baptist, whom many of the “regular” people saw as a prophet.
The people of Jesus’ time would have been very familiar with the many references to the people of Israel as a vineyard. The health of the vineyard is a symbol of the covenant relationship between God and the people. But, the vineyard is not always a healthy place, describing a strong relationship. Listen to this passage from Isaiah 5:

Let me sing for my beloved
   my love-song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard
   on a very fertile hill. 
He dug it and cleared it of stones,
   and planted it with choice vines;
he built a watch-tower in the midst of it,
   and hewed out a wine vat in it;
he expected it to yield grapes,
   but it yielded wild grapes. 
And now I will tell you
   what I will do to my vineyard.
I will remove its hedge,
   and it shall be devoured;
I will break down its wall,
   and it shall be trampled down. 
I will make it a waste;
   it shall not be pruned or hoed,
   and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns;
I will also command the clouds
   that they rain no rain upon it. 
For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts
   is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah
   are his pleasant planting;
he expected justice,
   but saw bloodshed;
   but heard a cry!
It is clear that the leaders in particular have not kept up their end of the covenant. This was true in Isaiah’s time, 500-600 years before Jesus. And it was true in Jesus’ time. The tenants of the vineyard, Jesus is saying, have not tended the vineyard well, and they are about to be kicked out of the vineyard. 
Jesus quotes Psalms and Isaiah when he refers to a cornerstone. The Jewish leaders would have been very familiar with this reference as well. The laying of a cornerstone refers to the forming of a new building; something new is about to happen when God lays a cornerstone. Sometimes the cornerstone is an image for a building, sometimes it refers to leaders. This time, Jesus himself is the cornerstone.
It is possible to see in this image of a cornerstone the destruction of the temple and the Jewish sacrificial system. By the time the Gospel of Matthew was written, the centuries-old pattern of temple-centered worship has been replaced by worship in the local synagogues. For those who believe in Jesus, worship is held in synagogues or in homes and focuses on celebrating the resurrected and ascended Jesus.
An important aspect of interpretation of this passage from Matthew is the way the Jewish leaders would have heard it. In Jesus’ time, the landowners were the Roman and Jewish leaders. Most of the people of that time owned little, if any, land. Some of them owned their houses and enough land to raise crops and animals to feed themselves and a little for profit. Some of them owned businesses. But most people of the day were servants, tenant farmers – share croppers, we might call them.
The Jewish leaders Jesus was talking with were the landowners, and they heard the story through that interpretive lens. They would have been horrified if their tenant farmers behaved the way the tenants in the story did. They knew they had the right to be angry and kick the evil tenants out of the vineyard.
Suddenly, they realized Jesus had caught them in a trap. If they were the tenants of God’s vineyard and they had not taken good care of it, if they had mistreated those whom God had sent, they deserved to be kicked out of the vineyard. Naturally, this was not something they wanted to hear, and they had one more reason to get rid of Jesus.
When we consider the parable in light of congregational life today, it is often no different. Leaders and members often find themselves at odds, and not treating each other kindly and with grace. As we seek to be the church and to do ministry in Jesus’ name, let us remember it is not our church or my church, but Jesus’ body. We are the tenants in God’s vineyard, called to nurture and care for God’s people just as much as the Jewish leaders were. We are called to bear fruit, the fruit of faith and of sharing the good news of Jesus with others.
There’s one more point to consider about this story, and it’s the most important point of all. After the Jewish and Roman leaders killed Jesus, God did not retaliate by killing them. God did allow the Romans to put down the Jewish rebellion which began in 66CE, and resulted in the destruction of the temple. But God did not send natural or divine disasters to destroy the people.
Instead, God raised Jesus from the dead, and Jesus then ascended into heaven. We give thanks and praise to God for this gift of forgiveness and grace. At heart, we are often – or maybe, usually – no better than the Jewish leaders in caring for God’s vineyard. We are just as much in need of grace as they were.
Today, as Violet is baptized, we remember our own faith in Christ Jesus. We promise along with her parents and sponsors to nurture her and help her grow in faith. Together, we will continue to produce fruit in God’s vineyard. We give thanks for the gift of the Holy Spirit which nudges us and helps us maintain our sense of connection with God and with each other.
This week, I invite you to consider those ways in which you care for God’s vineyard; and those ways in which you are in need of God’s grace.
 Please pray with me: Gracious God, you give us life and a purpose for living: to care for your vineyard. Nurture faith in us and especially Violet today.

Children’s Message: Ten Commandments
Prop: image of Ten Commandments for Children
In our first reading today, there was a list of rules. Does anyone know what the list is called?

When we read the rules in the Bible, they can be hard to understand, so I have a list that makes them easier to understand.

Let’s talk about them for a couple of minutes. Some of the rules help us put God first in our lives, and some of them help us be kind to other people.

It’s not always easy to obey these rules, but God wants us to try.

Pray: Jesus, it’s hard to be good all the time, but we will try, if you help us. Amen